NFC West Position-by-Position: Tight Ends

A month into this discussion and we've discussed the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.  Now, we reach a position that causes a good deal of stress among 49ers fans: tight end.  As divisive as the QB position is, there is probably just as big a divide in the pro/con Vernon Davis camps.  He's a physically gifted athlete, but he has been wildly inconsistent.  He'll make a huge play and follow that up with an absolute bonehead decision.

We decided to go with tight end for today's discussion and came up with the rankings below.  A healthy Randy McMichael could possibly move the Rams to second, but for now I think the 49ers are at least second best in the division.  Maybe better?  Guess it depends on your thoughts on second year Seahawks TE John Carlson.

1. Seattle Seahawks
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. St. Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals

Seattle Seahawks
Blogger
: John Morgan
Combining age, health, production, support skills and cost it’s tempting to award Seattle and "A"— ah hell I’ll do it. Why is John Carlson and truly just John Carlson worth an "A"? He’s 25 (as of May 12) at a position that tends to decline after age 29. That means he has more productive seasons ahead of him than almost any other tight end of his capability.  He was healthy his rookie season and has no outstanding health concerns.

As part of a totally failed pass offense that lacked weapons of any kind before Deion Branch’s late season resurgence, Carlson was not only productive, catching 55 passes for 627 yards and five touchdowns, but important, Seattle’s leading receiver by receptions, yards, touchdowns, and efficient. It’s the efficiency that’s so remarkable. On an offense that couldn’t produce, Carlson did. Passes targeting Carlson were worth 143 DYAR, 9th best among all tight ends. He produced with three different quarterbacks, one named Charlie Frye. He produced when NFL teams adjusted to the Seahawks’ only weapon, assigning safeties to stop him and linebackers to bracket him. He produced like a top veteran at a position that’s famously tough on rookies.

Carlson isn’t a great pass blocker, but he’s developing. He’s already a pretty good run blocker and relative to his more-slot-receiver-than-tight-end contemporaries, an excellent run blocker. He’s a hard worker with a pronounced competitive streak. He’ll work and he’ll improve.

Despite all that, he’s not yet as on-field valuable as the truly elite at his position: Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow and Chris Cooley, but he has a substantial off-field advantage. Carlson cost Seattle $770,000 against the cap in 2008. His four-year contract is worth only $4.52 million. That means he will cost Seattle less in four years than Gonzalez or Winslow cost in 2008, and has less remaining through 2011 than Vernon Davis will make in 2009 alone.

So it’s a qualified "A", yes, and behind Carlson is only a blocking tight end, John Owens, potential, Cameron Morrah, and busted potential, Joe Newton, but Carlson, like Heath Miller in 2008, Brandon Jacobs in 2007 and Bob Sanders in 2006, is the kind of low cost/high value talent that defines "Championship Caliber".

Grade: A

 

San Francisco 49ers
Blogger
: Fooch

The 49ers tight ends have created great frustration for 49ers fans for much of this decade.  Lately, this frustration has come in the form of Vernon Davis.  Davis is a physically  gifted athlete.  There are few athletes in the NFL that combine his speed and size.  Of course, few athletes share his ability to talk smack while not producing at the level you'd expect from said talk.

A lot of fans have written off Vernon Davis as a loudmouth, over-hyped workout warrior.  I can understand this viewpoint, but I remain convinced that Davis is a unique weapon that is essential for the 49ers future success.  Although Davis has great speed and size, he often struggles to make plays on deeper routes.  I remain convinced that he can be most effective in plays where the QB gets the ball in his hands as soon after the snap as possible.  This is a man you can line up anywhere on the field, from TE to WR to RB and utilize his speed and size to make plays.  When he's used in swing passes, screens or even reverses, he has made things happen.

I gave the 49ers a C in large part because Vernon Davis has at times been able to capitalize on the mountain of potential.  In 2007, his second season, Davis finished 4th among NFC tight ends in receptions and sixth in yards.  However, more than that is his blocking ability.  He's pointed to as one of the best blocking tight ends in the game and he's actually said he felt he could be a Pro Bowl offensive tackle if he put on some weight.  And while, those outside the 49ers flock might write that off as continued smack talk, I can tell you he's probably correct.

This past season saw him held back to block significantly more than his first two seasons in part because of the Martz offense's proclivity to give up sacks.  Since the hiring of Jimmy Raye, the talk has been of using Davis in a more traditional receiving tight end role.  Raye worked extensively with Tony Gonzalez in Kansas City and so it will be interesting to see how he utilizes Davis in 2009.  I can guarantee you that at least Davis's receiving numbers will go up across the board.  If the 49ers can properly utilize his rare physical gifts, he will be a very solid threat on offense.
 
The primary backup to Davis has been Delanie Walker.  Walker is a wide receiver converted to tight end.  He's got some solid hands, but has never quite reached the next level outside of the preseason.  Aside from having a cult following, Walker's biggest claim to fame is that he's one of the few (if only) tight ends utilized on kick returns.  Allen Rossum is the 49ers primary return man, but when he went down with an injury, Walker got a lot of time as a kick returner.  Although injury forced it, Walker has a good deal of speed for a tight end and thus was not the worst choice in the world.  However, in terms of the offense, his blocking is limited and thus he does not get as much of an opportunity as he might otherwise see.
 
The 49ers drafted Bear Pascoe out of Fresno State in the sixth round this year to replace blocking tight end Billy Bajema.  It didn't take long for the cowboy (he actually participates in rodeos!) to gain a big fan following among 49ers fans.  As a sixth round pick there's certainly a reason he was passed on by so many teams.  As the replacement for Bajema, I'd imagine his primary task this year will be in the run game.  However, he might turn into an upgrade over Bajema in the receiving game.  Bajema had two receptions last season, which was two more than the previous two seasons combined.  When Bajema was on the field, it was safe to cheat off him as a defender.  Bear appeared to be a solid receiver at Fresno State, so hopefully he can keep defenders a little more honest.  Grade C

Blogger: VanRam
With the coaching situation and the offense finally looking like they'll have some much needed stability, the Rams are counting on Randy McMichael to regain 60+ reception ability this season. He was sorely missed last season, leaving in week four with a broken leg. In the seasons prior to that, he was utilized more as a blocker - an area where he's "good enough" - to help compensate for the sorry state of the offensive line. He's also, officially, the team's most experienced receiver, revealing just how much the team will be counting on him. The new West Coast play book will have plenty of seam routes for McMichael and used to create mismatches in the middle on plays that use the speedy receivers like Donnie Avery to stretch the field and keep safeties honest. We know McMichael has the ability to be a useful 60 reception guy, but, needless to say, he has to stay healthy, something you can't take for granted with a TE entering his age-30 year. He is now practicing at full speed, with no limitations, but the hitting has yet to begin.

If McMichael does succumb to injury, the next receiving TE on the Rams depth chart is the 6'4" 270 lbs Cal-Davis product Daniel Fells, a mid-season pick up from the Tampa Bay practice squad. Fells flashed some potential during the 2008 season, but has really impressed with his hands in practice. Fells still has to answer charges that he doesn't play physical enough. His spot is by no means guaranteed, but he does seem to have leaped over 2006 second round pick Joe Klopfenstein, a fan icon for lost draft picks and a guy who probably won't be on the team come September.

Third on the depth chart at TE is blocking specialist Billy Bajema, signed away from the 49ers as a free agent this spring to be younger version of last year's free agent blocking TE Anthony Becht...who's now with the Cardinals in what surely must be the league's most incestuous division for tight ends.

I'm giving this unit a B. We know that McMichael is capable of being among the best of that group of TEs just below the elite guys that even the novices in your fantasy league know of. With an improved offensive line he'll get to do what he does best more often, while the other guys fill the roles.

Arizona Cardinals
Blogger: cgolden
After struggling to find an adequate and healthy starter last year, the Cardinals seem to be taking the Jon Gruden QB approach, with their tight ends this off season. During last season four different players started multiple games at tight end for the Cardinals, Ben Patrick, Leonard Pope, Jerame Tuman and Stephen Spach. If you could summarize the talent at tight end last season in one sentance, it would be that the team signed a guy off the streets in October who became far and away the best guy on the depth chart in less than three weeks. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt, a former tight end himself, brought in two more tight ends this off season although surprisingly they didn't select one in the draft.

The current depth chart is without a star but there's more than a handful of warm bodies. Stephen Spach would have to enter camp as the early favorite to win the starting job, if he's fully healed from a torn ACL in the playoff game against the Panthers. Spach was signed mid-season and almost instantly shot to the top of the depth chart thanks to injuries and his steady play. He's not a great blocker or a great receiver but he does both adequetely, which is more than anyone else could say last year. The other two returning 'part-time' starters Ben Patrick and Leonard Pope will have to prove they can stay healthy before much is expected out of either. Patrick is the best receiver of the bunch (only TE with double digit receptions) and he's probably still got the highest ceiling of any returning tight ends, but the former 7th round pick will have to improve in the running game before Whiz warms up to his game. Leonard Pope is the one of the most aggravating players on the roster and plenty consider this a make or break year for the three year vet. After showing some promise down the stretch in 2007, Pope struggled to stay healthy or effective in 2008. His heighth (6'8) hasn't helped him become the red zone threat that most envisioned and it makes him almost a complete liability as a blocker. His propensity for false starts is equally frustrating. The final returning player, Alex Shor, is a career practice squad guy who's considered a long shot, at best, to make the roster. When the organization chose to sign a free agent in the middle of the season instead of 'call up' Shor, it was a pretty clear sign that they're not overly hopeful about his abilities.

The two additions to the roster, Anthony Becht and Dominique Byrd, are both former Rams. At 280 pounds, Becht is essentially a third offensive tackle but considering Whiz's desire for a running game, some consider Becht the favorite to win the starting job. Byrd is a former third round pick in 2006 who was underwhelming to say the least in St. Louis and didn't win over many fans or coaches with his desire or work ethic. Still though the Cardinals saw something that they liked when he showed up at USC's pro day this spring and he's got a shot to make the team.

All in all the Cardinals are throwing mud against the wall and hoping that something will stick. Maybe someone will stay healthy and provide some decent production or maybe we'll be scouring the free agent cast offs come mid season.  Grade: D

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